Intel. officials debate alternate paths toward a ceasefire with Hamas

Many of the current IDF intelligence officials believe a long-term truce is possible.

Palestinians take part in a rally marking the 31st anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
Palestinians take part in a rally marking the 31st anniversary of Hamas' founding, in Gaza City
The security cabinet is debating whether they should cut a deal or ceasefire with Hamas – but what would this look like?
There are a number of different views within the defense establishment on the issue. Many of the current IDF intelligence officials believe a long-term truce is possible. They note Hamas’s conscious decision to stay out of the November round of fighting between Israel and the Gaza chapter of Islamic Jihad. They also note Hamas’s decision to reduce the volume and frequency of the marches on the Gaza border.
In contrast, the opinion of the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a group of ex-top intelligence officials, is that a long-term truce is not in reach or would not hold, whereas a more minimal, extended truce might be possible. They say that Hamas’s recent “concessions” are merely a tactical retreat to get breathing room and improve the economy, but has not shown any readiness to disarm or put the resistance on hold indefinitely.
At the heart of the debate are different views at both the conceptual and concrete tactical levels. Conceptually, former deputy Shin Bet chief Aryeh Felman, who runs Commanders for Israel’s Security, believes a solution must have a built-in process to restore Palestinian Authority control of Gaza. Felman says if the deal is only cut with Hamas, this will give them profound legitimacy generally, enshrine their control of Gaza and even potentially undermine PA control of the West Bank in favor of Hamas.
Former Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen believes that such an approach might be more ideal. He is bothered by any deal that could enhance Hamas’s standing, but views restoring PA control in Gaza as simply unrealistic. He notes that not only has Hamas now ruled Gaza for well over a decade, but it has also eliminated any potential challenges to its rule.
The Felman and Cohen camps also differ on some of the concrete tactical incentives Israel can offer Gaza. Felman’s camp advocates a staged approach, but in segment two of his method, he would advocate building various kinds of ports for Gaza. The purpose of a port would be to make a mega-change to Gaza’s economic situation by much more fully opening it up to the world. He would insist that these ports be run by the PA, and not Hamas.
In regards to what kind of port, many ideas have been tossed around: from a port in Gaza to an artificial port off the coast to allow Gaza special access to Cyprus. These different mechanisms for a port are distinct ways of making it hard for Hamas to import larger and more dangerous weapons than what has been possible during Israel’s largely effective sea blockade.
There are deep suspicions that Iran would exploit any opening to get Hamas some of the more powerful and accurate rockets that it has already delivered to Hezbollah. While Felman thinks these issues might be overcome by PA control, Cohen views all of the port ideas as dangerous and unworkable.
Part of this relates to his view that Hamas will not grant the PA control of anything crucial in Gaza, even if it might allow some PA officials to return to run civil services. Another part is that he does not trust the PA itself to properly protect Israeli security at any point in the near or even medium foreseeable future.
Although top Likud minister Israel Katz has trumpeted the idea of having a port off the coast, in the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has leaned toward Cohen’s view. Cohen was his Shin Bet chief, and a close adviser until 2016.
Blue and White’s Ram Ben Barak, also a former Mossad deputy chief, is one of the fathers of the Cyprus port idea. But party leader Benny Gantz has carefully avoided saying what kind of concessions he might grant Hamas if he was running the country.
Cohen’s big idea for the future, if Hamas behaves, is to facilitate a direct shuttle between Gaza and Jordan without the requirement to stop for checks in the West Bank.
Both Felman and Cohen view a return of some or all of the living or dead Israelis to Israel should be a component of any deal, even if it does not happen at the first stage. Ironically, reports indicate that if there is a deal, one concession Netanyahu is complicating is to ease economic and travel conditions for Gaza without getting any of these Israelis, or their bodies, back.
Though Iran and Hezbollah are relevant items in the news right now, how this debate is resolved may be the single most important security question confronting Israel when looked at from a decade-long view as Israel enters 2020.